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A Sense of Time & Place: Saving Elgin’s Neighborhoods

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Once suffering from crime and blight, Elgin’s inner city is enjoying a renaissance of sorts. Paul Anthony Arco explores how the city and its residents are restoring architectural history one block at a time.

Like many historic homes in Elgin, this one has been lovingly restored to reflect its original character. (Tom Holoubek photo)

Like many historic homes in Elgin, this one has been lovingly restored to reflect its original character. (Tom Holoubek photo)

There’s a motto in Elgin that’s become popular among local residents. “You don’t have to move to live in a better neighborhood.”

Len Govednik knows this very well. When he moved to town, Govednik planned to buy a fixer-upper for his first home, with the idea of moving on in five years. After an exhaustive search, he found a quaint bungalow that required some much-needed tender loving care. He bought the home and began the arduous process of restoring its natural character.

That was 25 years ago, and he’s still there. “I fell in love with the house and with the neighborhood,” Govednik says.

Over the years, this senior manager at T-Mobile has made numerous upgrades. He spent two years stripping and repainting the exterior. Then he moved indoors, where he repaired and decorated the bedrooms, gutted and replaced the bathroom and replaced all of the home’s plumbing. Then, he overhauled the dining room and kitchen. This past summer, he installed a patio along the north side of the home. The only thing he hasn’t touched is the gas meter, he jokes.

“I had never done anything like this before, but I’ve watched plenty of episodes of This Old House,” Govednik says. “Working on an older home takes time, money and ambition – all at the same time. But I love Elgin. It’s rich in history, and it’s growing. And the neighborhoods still possess character and charm.”

A working-class town of nearly 110,000 people, Elgin is remarkable for the way that its historic neighborhoods are returning to life. Once fraught with crime and blight, many of these old blocks are regaining a sense of beauty and pride, thanks to the efforts of passionate residents and a committed city government.

“Many people have fought to make the neighborhoods better,” says Jennifer Fukala, who has fixed up her own historic home. “Elgin is experiencing a renaissance and now is the time to become part of it. It’s refreshing to see.”

Along the way, there’s an evolving mindset about what homeownership means.

“Elgin neighborhoods are a story of stabilization, if not revitalization,” says Bill Briska, chairman of the Elgin Heritage Commission, and owner of an historic home. “People used to buy in, trade up and move out. Now the idea is to keep your assets and stay in the neighborhoods.”

Diversity in Homes

Elgin’s story isn’t much different from that of other big cities. Once-charming central neighborhoods began declining after World War II, when people favored new construction over old, and urban renewal programs encouraged demolition over restoration. Many neighborhoods lost their character, thanks to deferred maintenance, insensitive remodeling, litter, vandalism and aging.

During the 1970s, some of Elgin’s majestic mansions were razed, their lots subdivided. Single-family homes were converted to apartments. Middle- and upper-class residents moved to newer housing in newer neighborhoods. Investments in central neighborhoods all but disappeared.

“There were many homes that were beat up,” Briska says. “But part of our story is the passion shown by many of these homeowners. They fell in love with the buildings, rather than looking for a financial gain. They brought life back to many of these homes.”

Dennis Roxworthy has been fixing up old homes since 1990. A former newspaper pressman, Roxworthy has repaired everything from Victorians to bungalows to modern homes, and received city awards for his work restoring more than 60 homes in the Elgin area.

“It’s in my blood,” says Roxworthy, who also serves on Elgin’s Heritage Commission and the Elgin Historical Society’s board of directors. “I look at my work as creating pieces of art. I love turning a blighted home into something good for a new homeowner. That’s a great feeling.”
Elgin’s most prominent historic neighborhoods are near the downtown, and span about five to 10 blocks.

Located east of downtown, the Elgin Historic District contains part of the original city plat laid out by city founder James Gifford in 1842. It contains a rich collection of late-19th and early 20th century residential architecture. Many of its homes were built during the prosperous 1880s and ’90s, the heyday of the Elgin National Watch Company.

The Spring-Douglas Historic District includes 496 homes and follows Spring Street and Douglas Avenue north from Kimball Street to River Bluff Road. The southern portion of this 12-block district is known for its vernacular architecture, mostly gable-front houses, while its northern portion represents a range of late-19th and early 20th century styles, mostly Queen Anne.

The South West Area Neighborhood (SWAN) runs west of the Fox River, north of U.S. 20, south of Walnut Street and east of Marguerite Street. SWAN features many of the kit homes that Chicago-based Sears, Roebuck and Co. sold across America between 1908 and 1940. Elgin has about 300 Sears homes.

Today, one of the most appealing aspects about Elgin is the diverse range of architectural styles in almost every neighborhood. There’s a mix of large, stately mansions, new tract homes, apartment buildings, bungalows and high-rise condominiums.

“In Elgin, there’s no typical neighborhood,” says Briska. “Elgin has all styles.”

Queen Annes, for example, are known for their asymmetrical facades, prominent front-facing gables, variety of window types, large porches, steeply pitched roofs and detailed trim.
Bungalows have many variations. The most common is one or one-and-a-half stories high, usually with a full-width porch. Chicago-style bungalows are rectangular buildings with the short side facing the street, a style well-suited to narrow city lots. Bungalows are typically built of brick and embellished with art-glass windows.

“In Elgin, you can find anything from homes built 150 years ago, to homes built less than 150 days ago,” says Briska. “We have single-family to multi-family to tailored homes for an active senior community, to homes for first-time homebuyers. You have big houses next to smaller cobblestone homes, which are next to mansions. It was just the way it evolved. It was never part of a plan. Unlike many suburbs that are landlocked, Elgin has always been able to expand. We’ve always had new buildings every decade, including during the Depression.”

City Assistance

The City of Elgin offers many incentives for homeowners to spruce up their historic properties. Grants are available to help buyers restore single-family homes that were divided into multifamily units; to remove chain link fencing; to paint a home’s exterior; and to remove replacement siding – asphalt shingle, aluminum or vinyl – from their homes, and repair or restore the original wood siding.

The city of Elgin and Kane County have formed a consortium partnership, which makes federal dollars available through participation in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Home Investment Partnership Program. Residential grants are also available through HUD’s block grants.

“I commend the city for offering incentives for people who are truly interested in making a difference in their neighborhoods,” says Roxworthy.

Neighborhood Associations

One catalyst for the city’s neighborhood resurgence is its strong core of neighborhood associations.

Elgin was ahead of most communities when it formed its first neighborhood group. The Gifford Park Association (GPA) was started in 1979 by neighbors whose homes faced the public square now known as Gifford Park. The neighborhood roughly includes the area south of Park Street, west of Liberty Street, north of Villa Street and east of Center Street.

“They were worried about crime, street gangs and deteriorating homes,” Briska says. “You have to have people who care about their neighborhoods, and you need good city services and demographics working in your favor. Has it helped? It’s difficult to gauge cause and effect. It certainly hasn’t hurt.”

GPA lobbied the city to enact a preservation ordinance and to have the neighborhood named a local historic district. To promote architectural appreciation through public education, GPA launched its first historic home tour in 1981 and invested proceeds back into the community. Today, the tours attract 2,000 visitors every year.

The Gifford Park group has also purchased, rehabilitated and re-sold seven problem properties, while initiating the “Great Unveiling” program, which provides modest grants and volunteer labor to help homeowners remove replacement siding and restore historic facades.

“Gifford Park became the inspiration of other neighborhood groups starting their own effort,” says Briska. “Some have been more successful than others.”

GPA’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. In 2007, GPA received Landmarks Illinois’ prestigious Richard H. Driehaus award. The following year, it earned the National Trust for Historic Preservation Award. In 2009, through the combined nomination by GPA and the North East Neighborhood Association, Elgin was recognized by This Old House magazine as one of the best places in America to buy a “fixer-upper.”

“Neighborhood associations are a place for people to develop social ties,” says Briska. “The core people know each other and help each other. It’s a way for people to work together on various projects, to arrive at solutions to problems.”

Volunteer Power

The municipal government also provides key support, especially the Elgin Heritage Commission. This citizen’s advisory body promotes historic preservation and maintenance of the city’s architectural, historical and cultural resources. It’s also responsible for reviewing and recommending designation of Elgin sites, structures or areas having special historical, architectural, community or archaeological value as landmarks or historic districts.

“It’s a strong recommending group to the council,” says Amy Munro, historic preservation and grants planner for the City of Elgin. “Their knowledge and expertise is just great, and the council values their recommendations. I learn a lot from them and they’re 100 percent invested. People trust them.”

Briska wears many hats, in addition to being chairman of the Heritage Commission. He’s a board member and treasurer of the Gifford Park Association, representing the neighborhood where he’s lived for 32 years. He’s also treasurer of the Elgin Historical Society and chair of the city’s strategic plan advisory commission, and is seated on the design review subcommittee.

A retired administrator and clinician at the Elgin Mental Health Center, Briska has always had a strong interest in history and architecture. “Living in an older neighborhood, I was interested in preservation nationwide, but Gifford Park is my backyard,” he says. “You can sit back and do nothing, or you can contribute. You have to give back to your community. Volunteerism forms the basis for a lot of things to happen, including advocacy, raising consciousness, emotional investment.”

Busy as Briska is, he’s in good company.

“The volunteers that Elgin has, both in preservation and program, are phenomenal,” says Munro. “Having their advocacy and involvement is significant to the city’s preservation efforts. I’ve been very impressed with the level of volunteerism. If I have questions, the commissioners are quick to help out. Their level of knowledge is invaluable.”

Elgin’s unique approach to community revitalization is gaining traction in other communities, where some use the neighborhood design guidelines created by Elgin’s preservation department. A former historic preservationist for Will County, Munro was well aware of Elgin’s efforts, before she joined the City in 2012. “Elgin is well-revered and well-respected outside the area,” she says.

Elgin’s Future

What direction will Elgin’s neighborhoods take in the next decade? Briska sees it going one of two ways.

“You have these neighborhoods that stand on the brink of renaissance or ruin,” he says. “If you let insensitive remodeling cut into the character of the neighborhood, ruin will take over. If historic architecture is preserved and you develop a sense of neighborhood pride, maintain the properties and bring the others up, you’ll have a renaissance.

“Without the work that’s been done to this point, the future of these neighborhoods would be bleak,” he adds. “They’ve been stabilized and improved. The hope is that this level of improvement will migrate into other older neighborhoods in town. To get that to work, you need actively engaged government, and grant money to leverage private investment through city-sponsored incentives. The City of Elgin has been very good at that, even through the recession.”

Jennifer Fukala moved into her Near West Side vernacular-style home in early 2009. The South Elgin native, a single mother to 6-year-old Cassius, wanted a place to call home. She found her dream home in the same neighborhood where she attended church as a young child. “I remember being 6 and wanting an antique home,”’ she says. “I love collecting antiques. I consider this house to be part of my own collection.”

Since moving in, Fukala has made several interior and exterior updates to her home. “I feel so much responsibility to care for the home and carry on for the owners who came before me,” she says. “I want to be a good steward of the home. I have no aspirations of moving. I want to pay it off as soon as possible and will it to my son. He always jokes, ‘Someday, this will all be mine.’”

Fukala has an easy walk to downtown Elgin’s restaurants and shops, and she likes it that way. “I’m a huge advocate of these older neighborhoods,” says Fukala, who serves as vice president of the Near West Neighborhood Association. “For me, it means a lot to live and raise my son in a diverse environment. I want to do something to make it better for my son’s future. I want to be part of the solution.”

Along with the can-do attitude and volunteer spirit that’s energizing Elgin’s neighborhoods, there’s also a sense of purpose and a need to recognize and celebrate the past.

“These neighborhoods contribute to the sense of time and place,” says Briska. “These houses are like vintage cars. They become valued over time. They don’t make ’57 Chevys anymore, and they don’t build Victorian and bungalow houses anymore – and they won’t. If you take the fins off a ’57 Chevy and strip off the orientation of a Victorian home, they’re worthless. All properties need to be maintained. If you don’t, they will deteriorate and become undesirable. That doesn’t serve the city or the neighborhoods well. It compromises the whole thing. That’s why it’s so meaningful to save these homes.”

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